ZePossibilities of Pumpkins

ZeBot's Pumpkin Patch Buddies

I just made ZeGreatest discovery! You know those orange spheres that are piling up in farmers’ markets and grocery stores? They’re pumpkins! Okay, you probably already knew this, but pumpkins are totally new to me. (Give me a break: I’m a zebra!)

I always figure the best way to find out about something you never knew existed is to do a little detective work. My favorite farmers, food historians and librarians were happy to help out. I even asked a couple of dogs, since if they like something, you KNOW it’s going to be cool.

My buddies Spot and Rover give pumpkins a BIG paws up!

My buddies Spot and Rover give pumpkins a BIG paws up!

I found out that pumpkins are members of the squash-and-gourd family (it’s always fun to have family, don’t you think?). Some people think pumpkins are vegetables, but they’re actually fruits. You can tell because fruits almost always have seeds on the inside (although berries like to be different and have them on the outside). If you’ve ever scooped the squishy guts out of a pumpkin, you know they have LOTS of seeds.

You might think from their bright orange color that pumpkins give you tons of energy — and you’d be right. They’re loaded with natural sweetness and awesome nutrients like beta-carotene, vitamin C, potassium and fiber. Crunchy roasted pumpkin seeds are packed with good-for-you stuff like protein, B vitamins, iron and vitamin E.

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George Washington, ZeFarmer: Exploring ZeCulinary Gardens of Mount Vernon

ZeBot Poses at Mount Vernon

What do kids, zebras and George Washington have in common?

Lots of things!

Vision. Imagination. Ingenuity.

The joyful desire to explore new ideas and discover innovative ways to do things. The belief that anything is possible—and that you can have fun making it happen.

If you’re an American kid, you already know that George Washington was the very first president of the United States.

But did you know he was also called America’s “foremost farmer”?

ZeBot Visionary Farmer

It makes sense, because both being president and a farmer have a lot to do with planting, growing and harvesting—whether you’re talking about seeds or ideas.

George Washington was as innovative and visionary at farming and horticulture as he was at helping to create a country. When he wasn’t busy being president, his primary occupation was being a farmer.

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ZeHunger Challenge

ZeBot Hunger Challenge 2015

Zebras love challenges (including learning to cook and write without the benefit of opposable thumbs). And we’re always hungry for new things—new foods, new friends, new ideas.

So when I heard about the Hunger Challenge, I knew I wanted to give it a try—but in a ZeZillion years, I could never have imagined how powerfully it would help me learn about the world around me.

The Hunger Challenge is a five-day journey initiated by the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, whose executive director Paul Ash describes it as a special way to “become an advocate for the hungry.”

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ZeCaptiva Coconut Caper

Zebra Beach Picnic on Captiva Golf Course

When it comes to exploring, zebras (like kids) really know how to earn their stripes!

My Uncle Zep (also known as ZeGreat Chef Zepicure) and I got together to spend a whole month exploring a magical island called Captiva, which is just off the west coast of Florida in ZeGulf of Mexico.

The place where we’ve had our ZHQ (zebra headquarters) is called South Seas Island — which was once a big plantation. In the early 1900s, it was one of the world’s largest growers of Key limes!

ZeScoutAbout at Beach

We’ve been roaming ZeBeaches and mangrove forests in search of adventure—and an island fruit that could keep us going strong through all our explorations, which tend to make us super hungry and thirsty. Continue reading

ZeGreat Heirloom Tomato Cake

ZeBot Heirloom Tomato CakeSummer is ZePerfect time for celebrations – and all the fresh colors and flavors at ZeFarmer’s Markets make it more fun than ever!

So you can imagine how excited I was to be invited to help host a Farmer’s Market Supper Party with some of the Bay Area’s coolest food bloggers and cookbook authors (links to all ZeRecipes are at the end of this post).

Our mission: to showcase the season’s bounty with a creative vegetarian supper. Everyone was very understanding about my being a novice cook/baker who’s all hooves (and no opposable thumbs) and told me it would be fine if I made up a zebra-friendly dessert.

I figured I’d do what ZeGrandma and ZeMom always taught me: don’t go to a farmer’s market with your stripes totally set on making something in particular.

ZeBot Tomatoes Napa

Instead, have fun wandering around and discovering the day’s freshly harvested treasures, then create a recipe based on what you find.
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ZeMambo di Mozzarella di Bufala

Riding High Too!

When zebras think about good food, three things that naturally come to mind are family, friends and sharing.

So I guess it’s only natural that I’d want to share a story about the amazing cheese that starts with milk from my ultra-cool friends: the Ramini Mozzarella Water Buffalo Family.

If you’re a kid (or even a zebra), you’re probably thinking, “What’s so amazing about mozzarella? I mean: I eat it all the time!”

Ramini Mozzarella brings the flavors of Italy to California!

Ramini Mozzarella brings the flavors of Italy to California!

But guess what? Unless you’ve traveled to Italy, I’ll bet you’ve NEVER eaten mozzarella that’s been handmade using rich, creamy milk that comes fresh from the buffalo—or, as the cheese is called in Italian, mozzarella di bufala.

Why would you have to go to Italy? Because authentic mozzarella di bufala is extremely perishable, so just about the only way to enjoy the real thing is to go right to the source.

To learn about authentic mozzarella di bufala, I went right to the source (hint: it wasn't Italy)!

To learn about authentic mozzarella di bufala, I went right to the source (hint: it wasn’t Italy)!

That’s usually Italy, where black water buffalo (different from our American buffalo, which are technically bison) have roamed the hills and fields of the Compania region for about a thousand years.

But thanks to Craig Ramini and his wife Audrey, you don’t have to go to Italy to meet these legendary creatures: you can hang out with them AND try the famous cheese made from their milk, right here in Northern California!

All the water buffalo have rock star names – from Grace Slick, Pat Benatar & Dusty Springfield to Sting and Shakira!

Ramini water buffalo have rock star names – from Grace Slick, Pat Benatar & Dusty Springfield to Sting and Shakira!

To really understand the story of mozzarella di bufala, you need to hear it straight from the water buffalo’s mouth.

Since most of the water buffalo at Ramini Mozzarella are named after famous rock stars, some of my favorite  kids and I got together to make a music video, followed by an exclusive insider interview with three of the water buffalo calves: Sting, Petula and Lulu.

ZEBOT: First of all, could you please explain why mozzarella di bufala is such a huge deal?

STING: Well, dude, we’ve been around it our whole lives, so it’s just everyday food for us—but, of course, we love it! Ditto for buffalo milk. But we were actually kind of surprised that the cheese has become so famous. I mean, we think it’s awesome, but you know, everyone loves their mom’s food!

PETULA (using a hoof to pull up a link on her iPad): Oh, Sting, really: mozzarella di bufala is famous for lots of great reasons!

Here’s what Sam Anderson had to say about it in the New York Times: “Buffalo milk has roughly twice the fat of cow milk, which makes it decadently creamy and flavorful. The good stuff is almost unrealistically soft — it seems like the reason the word ‘mouthfeel’ was invented — with a depth of flavor that makes even the freshest hand-pulled artisanal cow-milk mozzarella taste like glorified string cheese.”

In Italy, mozzarella di bufala has its own special symbol to show it's authentic.

In Italy, mozzarella di bufala has its own special symbol to show it’s authentic.

LULU: Wow, he really does make our moms’ cheese sound amazing—and he’s using a lot of impressive words! Basically, he’s saying that cow’s milk mozzarella has a totally different flavor and texture. Also, not to brag or anything, but buffalo milk is so rich that it gives you a 20% cheese yield from milk—milk from cows only gives you something like 5%.

Whether they're in Italy or California, the calves say there's no place like home!

Whether they’re in Italy or California, the calves say there’s no place like home!

STING: Yeah. In fact, the kind of milk used for mozzarella is so important that, in Italy, they even make the difference super-clear by using different names for the two cheeses.

Mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk is called mozzarella di bufala (which means “mozzarella from buffalo”), but the same type of cheese made from cow’s milk is called fior di latte (that literally translates “milk flower”—not sure why, maybe because cows like flowers or something).

LULU: When it comes to great cheese, the region where it’s made is also a big deal. In Italy, mozzarella di bufala is mostly made in Campania and Apulia. The Petaluma/Tomales Bay region of California where we live is a famous American cheesemaking area—and it has a Mediterranean climate that’s pretty similar to Italy.

In California, this is how you put the water on a water buffalo!

In California, this is how you put the water on a water buffalo!

STING: Yeah, we water buffalo love it! Sometimes visitors come to the farm and they’re like “Hey, where’s all the water for the water buffalo?”

But because it’s not super-hot here, we don’t need big ponds or lakes to cool off. When it rains, we make our own wallows in the pasture. And when it gets warm, Craig hoses us down—it’s great! We’re also really into the native grasses here, which taste fantastic.

Ramini mozzarella di bufala is made fresh -- just like in Italy!

Ramini mozzarella di bufala is made fresh — just like in Italy!

PETULA: It’s also very important to understand that mozzarella di bufala and other handcrafted local cheeses are an important part of Italian food culture. In Italy, humans go to the neighborhood caseificio (that’s an artisan cheesemaker) just like Americans might visit their favorite corner bakery.

LULU: You see, Craig and Audrey make their mozzarella di bufala fresh every few days—just like cheesemakers do in Italy, where humans know it’s best to enjoy fresh farmstead cheese “di giornata” (the day it’s made).

And, of course, everyone knows that the best cheese starts with the best milk. In order to get the best milk (or any milk at all) from a water buffalo, you REALLY have to know what you’re doing!

Farm Life

Like any kid, Petula knows how important it is to keep moms happy!

ZEBOT: So tell me about the whole dairy thing—is it sort of like milking cows?

PETULA: No way! I mean, some of my best friends are cows, but they have a totally different personality.

Water buffalo aren’t like modern dairy cows, who are more easily intimidated and will do pretty much anything humans want them to. Water buffalo are very independent thinkers. We’re tolerant to a point, but we decide when and how to cooperate.

What are you lookin' at?

What are you lookin’ at?

STING: You need to understand that even though we calves were born here in the U.S, we’re descended from centuries of wild water buffalo, who had to be constantly on the lookout for dangerous predators like hungry tigers.

That means we’re always super-aware of our surroundings—and ready to take off at a moment’s notice, if we have to.

ZEBOT: Yikes! But I thought your family was from Italy—do they have tigers in Italy?

STING: Um, I don’t think so, dude. But you see, even though water buffalo have lived in Italy for ages, we’re originally native to Southeast Asia. And trust me, the tigers there are REALLY wild.

The milking barn is so peaceful, even the cats find it relaxing!

The milking barn is so peaceful, even the cats find it relaxing!

PETULA: Okay, so let me explain how the milking works. Craig and Audrey figured out that the best thing to do is to let our moms’ natural intelligence work in everyone’s favor.

The milking barn and creamery are converted from an old cow dairy—but when Audrey (who’s a super-talented designer and architect) re-designed our milking barn, she worked hard to create a mellow, churchlike atmosphere where we’d all feel really peaceful and comfortable.

STING: And Craig, who used to work in software development, put his creativity to work in designing milking stalls that complement a water buffalo’s psychology.

See, it goes back to the whole predator thing. In order for our moms to produce milk and let it flow, their pituitary glands have to make a special hormone called oxytocin, which creates feelings of bonding, love and trust.

Love is what helps  moms produce oxytocin (this is true for humans, too)!

Love is what helps moms produce oxytocin (this is true for humans, too)!

LULU: But like Sting said before, wild water buffalo originally came from a place where there were lots of dangers, so we don’t naturally produce oxytocin easily, the way cows do.

And we DEFINITELY will not produce it if you try to lock our heads in a metal stanchion to make us stay still during milking.

ZEBOT: Oh, I totally understand—a zebra would never go for that either!

In order to make the  moms feel comfortable, Craig (the Dr. Phil of water buffalo) designed these special stalls.

In order to make the moms feel comfortable, Craig (the Dr. Phil of water buffalo) designed these special stalls.

PETULA: Exactly! So the way it works is that our moms go into the barn to be milked two-by-two in special nose-to-tail stalls designed just for them.

They get to choose their own order, too. Some of them run into the barn. Others are more like, “Hey, he gives us a little bit of hay while we’re waiting out here. So if we’re patient, we could get two meals ’cause he feeds us in there, too!”

If you treat a water buffalo like your best friend, you might even get a ride!

If you treat a water buffalo like your best friend, you might even get a ride!

LULU: Craig says that you need to treat a water buffalo just like you would your best friend. When we feel safe, secure and loved, we cooperate. So he makes sure that during milking time, everything is nice and peaceful. No tractors, no noisy farm work —even the Black Angus cattle next door have to be quiet!

STING: Yup! And since our moms give more milk when we calves are around, we get to hang out in the barn during milking time. Every morning, Craig brings us down from the pasture with these cool colored halters, then lets us chow down on really primo hay. It’s awesome!

You've probably seen a dog lead -- but have you ever seen one for water buffalo?

You’ve probably seen a dog lead — but have you ever seen one for water buffalo?

PETULA: Craig says that when the love is flowing, the milk is, too!

STING: That is so true—and some water buffalo are overflowing with love AND milk. My mom, who’s named Dusty Springfield, is so generous that she shares her milk with all the calves when we’re out in the pasture.

LULU: Yeah, Sting’s mom is the coolest—we calves all call her “the ice cream truck!” But we don’t ask her for anything in the milking barn, because we know that particular milk is the secret to making the world’s best mozzarella. We’re happy to share—we’re so proud of what our moms do!

The water buffalo calves get to nibble from this trough while their moms are being milked.

The water buffalo calves get to nibble from this trough while their moms are being milked.

ZEBOT: Wow, no WONDER water buffalo milk is so famous! So how does it turn into cheese?

PETULA: Well, the first thing is to be super-careful with the milk. Our moms are milked into special buckets, then Craig gently hand-carries the buckets from the barn side of the building to the creamery side.

LULU: This is really different from big cheese factories, where milk that’s been through high-speed pumps has to travel a long way on trucks to get there from the farm. I mean, I get dizzy just thinking about it! Our moms’ milk only has to travel six feet across the breezeway.

Anyone feel like a jug of water buffalo milk?

This jug shows exactly how much milk the water buffalo give — kind of like a giant measuring cup!

STING: So when Craig gets to the creamery, he pours the milk into this big stainless-steel vat that does three really cool things. First, it keeps the milk chilled until Craig is ready to make cheese.

Next, it pasteurizes the milk—that’s a process that takes all the bacteria out—both the good kind and the harmful kind. In the U.S., this is required by law for all fresh cheeses, which means any that are aged less than 60 days.

In order to make great cheese, you need all the traditional tools of the trade  -- including microscopic bacteria (not shown).

In order to make great cheese, you need all the traditional tools of the trade — including microscopic bacteria (not shown).

ZEBOT: But wait: I’ve read a little about cheesemaking—and I thought you NEED the good bacteria.

LULU: Oh, you do. So after the milk is pasteurized and cooled, Craig adds a patented starter that he imports from Italy—this is known as inoculating the milk. So now, the good bacteria in the starter goes to work interacting with the milk, which preps it for making cheese.

PETULA: After a few hours, Craig uses rennet to coagulate the milk (and the special bacteria keeps on working its magic). Next, he cuts the curd into smaller pieces, which increases the surface area and allows the whey to come out of the curd. Craig drains off the whey and uses it to make ricotta cheese.

ZeBot and Petula

While you wait for the curd to ferment, you get to spend quality time with your friends!

STING: At this point, all that patience our moms taught him comes in really handy, because now Craig has to wait about six hours for the curd to ferment.

If you like scientific stuff, this means the alkalinity is getting lower and the acidity is getting higher. In order to stretch the curd to make mozzarella, you’re looking for a perfect Ph window of between 4.85 and 5.00.

ZEBOT: Um, that’s a bit too scientific for this zebra—but stretching the curd sounds like fun!

Wondering what fermented mozzarella curd looks like before it's all stretched and shaped? This is it!

Wondering what fermented mozzarella curd looks like before it’s all stretched and shaped? This is it!

LULU: Oh, don’t worry—we calves don’t understand all the science yet, either. Sting’s just being a show-off and repeating what Craig says. But you’re right: stretching the curd is tons of fun!

ZEBOT: Have you guys ever tried it? Because I’d really like to, but I’m not sure about the whole hoof thing.

STING: Well, we haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I’m sure we could a great job—and so could you. What Craig does is pour almost-boiling water over the curd to melt it so he’ll be able to stretch it, kind of like Silly Putty.

Making mozzarella di bufala is tons of fun!

Making mozzarella di bufala is tons of fun!

PETULA: To make this happen, Craig stirs and kneads the whole steaming mass until it forms an elastic sort of paste that he can stretch into threads without ripping. In Italy, cheesemakers call mozzarella a pasta-filata cheese, which I’m pretty sure means “thread-making.”

LULU: Oh, wait, I want to use some Italian, too! So the next part is where Craig divides the stretchy, slippery curd into equal portions—that technique is called mozzatura and it’s actually what gives mozzarella cheese its name.

STING: Anyway, after that, Craig and Audrey form the mozzarella into balls or braids or whatever other shapes they want, then cool the cheese down a bit so it can be sliced.

And then: it’s ready to eat! I’ve heard cheese-loving humans say that tasting fresh mozzarella di bufala while it’s still warm is as close to heaven as you can get without leaving this Earth!

Fresh mozzarella di bufula is great for picnics by the pasture!

Fresh mozzarella di bufula is great for picnics by the pasture!

ZEBOT: Hey, I heard that: I tried some—and it was so soft and delicate and creamy that it made my stripes tingle! Tasting the cheese made me see why someone would go through all the hard work to make it.

Is that what motivated Craig and Audrey?

PETULA: Well, sure, that was a big part of it. And you know how we told you that love plays such a huge role in a water buffalo’s producing milk? It turns out that’s what helps humans create wonderful things, too.

The secret to happiness?

The secret to happiness?

LULU: Starting Ramini Mozzarella was a huge change (and a huge challenge) for both Craig and Audrey. The way Craig came up with it was to do what he calls a “mind map” of the things that made him the happiest.

STING: Yeah, and he came up with three big ones. First, when Craig was a kid, he always felt happy when he was with his grandfather, who owned an Italian restaurant.

Later, when he visited Africa and was around big animals and adventure, he was happy. And when he worked in high-tech, he worked with super-creative self-starters who were always trying to pull off something new—and that was another ticket to happiness.

This is a picture of pure happiness (which the calves are pretty sure was taken by Audrey).

This is a picture of pure happiness (which the calves are pretty sure was taken by Audrey).

PETULA: And like with so many family recipes, it was love and family that helped all the ingredients come together. Audrey’s food-loving brother and sister-in-law, who lived in Italy, asked why Americans didn’t make mozzarella di bufala.

LULU: Of course, to make it, you need fresh water buffalo milk—and that’s where our water buffalo families came into the picture. And Audrey loves animals and design and Italian food and family and creativity, so she was happy with the whole idea, too!

PETULA: And now, we’re all working together to make the cheese that makes everyone happy. Or, as they say in Italy: That’s amore!

STING: Hey, Lulu and Petula, that sounds like a great idea for another music video—let’s hoof it over to the pasture and get started on our next creative adventure!

If you enjoyed learning about all about farmstead mozzarella from water buffalo, the calves think you might also like to hear what a very special dog detective has to say about truffles in ZeAdventures of a Great Truffle Dog!

ZeAdventures of a Great Truffle Dog (& his Zebra Apprentice)

ZeBot the Truffle Zebra

There’s something a forest that brings out the adventurer in dogs and zebras alike – and when you add truffles to the scene, the ultimate companion for woodland discoveries is my canine pal, Rico.

What’s a truffle, you ask? Good question! Truffles are a kind of ‘underground mushroom’ that grow on the roots of certain kinds of trees. To a great cook, a truffle is one of the most amazing foods around – and Rico will explain why.

Like many of the world’s great truffle dogs, Rico is a Lagotto Romagnolo – a rare Italian breed that originated with the ancient Etruscans. Rico was born into a distinguished family of truffle hunters in the Sicilian village of Mazara del Vallo, arriving in America as a puppy with a keen nose for exploration. 

This is a painting of one of Rico's ancestors by the famous Italian artist, Guercino.

This is a painting of one of Rico’s ancestors by the famous Italian artist, Guercino.

Like many Sicilians, Rico has an amazing talent for storytelling. He agreed to grant this exclusive zebra interview if he could recount the truffle tales in his own words – read on for our question and answer session!

Rico, do you think a zebra could ever learn to hunt truffles?

 ZeBot, as long as you have a good nose and love treats anything is possible!  You’re on the right track to becoming a truffle-finding zebra.  The best thing is to start  with fresh truffles, like in your picture.

The secret to finding truffles? A great nose!

The secret to finding truffles? A great nose!

How did you first learn to hunt truffles, Rico?

When I was a tiny puppy in Sicily, the only toy I had was a tartufo (that’s Italian for ‘truffle’) sewn into a cloth bag called a borsa.

Mario, my first tartufaio (truffle hunter), started my training by throwing the borsa for me to retrieve – and giving me a treat when I brought it back to him.

When that got really easy, Mario started hiding the borsa so I’d have to search for it with my nose. Next, I learned the secret of being a champion truffle dog: you have to really dig truffles – literally.

Now, when I wanted a treat, I had to sniff out the borsa wherever Mario had buried it. He didn’t make it easy, but it turns out I’ve got a great nose and tireless paws.

These days, I’m a truffle hunting pro who travels all over the world – if there’s a truffle (or even truffle spores) anywhere around, you can count on me to bring you the treasure!

Here's Rico as a puppy in Sicily, learning to hunt truffles from his mom, Gaia.

Here’s Rico as a puppy in Sicily, learning to hunt truffles from his mom, Gaia.

 Can you tell us a little about your work as a truffle dog?

When I was about three months old, I started truffle hunting with my mamma, Gaia – she’s the dog who taught me everything I know. She said the first rule is make il tartufaio look good. Truffle dogs always have to put on a good show, even if there are no truffles.

First, we scent the air for the general vicinity of the truffles, then we sniff out the ground scent to determine their precise location. Next, we scratch the earth to show il tartufaio that we’ve found the exact spot – then we dig until we find the truffle. It’s tempting to eat it like truffle-hunting pigs often do, but we truffle dogs prefer gourmet canine treats.

As you can see, Rico really DIGS truffles!

As you can see, Rico really DIGS truffles!

 Do truffles only grow wild – or can they also be cultivated?

There are indigenous truffles growing wild all around the globe. On the west coast of North America, we have several flavorful varieties that grow all the way from California through parts of British Columbia.  However, to increase the traditional culinary truffle supply, increase their freshness, reduce transportation costs from Europe and help develop green businesses, there are groups throughout the world who plant truffle-infused trees in truffle orchards.

My buddies Robert Chang, MBA and Charles Lafevre, Ph.D. help people who want to start their own truffle orchards — they’d help a zebra, too, if you decide to grow truffles!

Rico & his Sicilian-American tartufaio, Bill, search for wild treasures at the Oregon Truffle Festival

How do growers cultivate truffles?

There are a lot of well-kept secrets to the truffle-orchard trade, but the simplest version imitates nature. Mycologists take a collection of their desired ripe truffles, then make a slurry by placing the truffles and some secret ingredients in a high-tech blender. The slurry is infused on the roots of nascent host trees – usually oak or hazelnut trees. Cultivating a truffle orchard is an extremely complex process, but I’m keeping my paws crossed for all the would-be growers.

Before Rico goes truffle hunting, he gets a good whiff of a fresh truffle!

Before Rico goes truffle hunting, he gets a good whiff of a fresh truffle!

Exactly what is it about truffles that makes them so irresistible?

You might be surprised to learn that the allure of the truffle is not its taste, but its aroma. Truffles actually have a limited flavor, but what they do to food is pure magic. The bouquet is difficult to express in words – people have described truffles as smelling like everything from fresh earth to old socks (which may be why we dogs are so good at finding them).

Even though it’s challenging to find the right descriptors, there’s one thing everyone agrees on: truffles are a rare luxury, like vintage champagne or caviar. In fact, next to saffron, they’re the most expensive food in the world.

What’s the simplest way to use truffles in the kitchen?

The secret is learning to make the most of truffles’ irresistible (and powerful) aroma. This lets you enjoy all sorts of wonderful homemade truffle products without necessarily using the truffle itself – and it’s what many tartufaios do to enjoy these magical tubers without having to give up the profits of selling them.

Rico loves ravioli with scrambled eggs & fresh truffles!

Rico loves ravioli with fresh truffles!

 

Could you tell us how to make truffle-infused foods?

It’s easy – you can ‘truffle’ all kinds of foods (and if you forget to keep your truffles in an airtight container, everything in your refrigerator will taste like truffles). My favorite foods for truffling are eggs, cheese and butter.

Start by cleaning fresh truffles with a mushroom brush under running water, then dry them with a cloth or paper towel. Next, loosely wrap the clean truffles in a paper towel to absorb any extra moisture.

Now make a nest of paper towels in a glass or plastic container with an airtight lid. Gently arrange the freshest organic eggs you can find in the nest, along with fresh butter and/or your favorite soft cheeses. Place the loosely wrapped truffle in the container, be sure the lid is tightly secured – and refrigerate.

Depending upon the size of the container and how generous you are with truffles, you’ll be enjoying truffled eggs, butter and cheese within 24 hours.

One of my all-time favorite truffle dishes is truffle-and-wild mushroom ravioli topped with truffle butter, scrambled truffled eggs and fresh truffles!

Check out the truffles Rico found, right in his own neighborhood!

Check out the truffles Rico found, right in his own neighborhood!

Where are your favorite places to find truffles?

Well, my motto in life and cooking is ‘hanno sempre una zampa avanti,’ which means ‘always have one paw forward.’ So my favorite way to find truffles is simply to go for a walk.

These days, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my Sicilian-American tartufaio, Bill Collins. Within 30 yards of our urban home, there’s a tree where I can sniff out truffles the size of a quarter all the way from late fall through mid-spring!

Rico always finds great truffles at the Napa Truffle Festival!

Rico always finds great truffles at the Napa Truffle Festival!

Since I understand that not everyone is an expert at sniffing out local wild truffles, here are some other places to find them:

If you want to be a forager, you can look up indigenous truffles in your area in one of my favorite guidebooks – or join your local mycological society.

For a culinary truffle experience, go to a festival.  My favorite ones on the west coast are the Oregon Truffle Festival and the Napa Truffle Festival. I also love visiting the truffle orchard at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where I forage with local plant pathologist, Dr. Tom Michaels.

10 Rico & Friends

What do you like to do when you’re not hunting truffles?

Well, like most dogs, I love to chase tennis balls and play frisbee – but I also help Bill with his other important work. When he’s not being a tartufaio, Bill is a psychologist who works with military veterans returning from overseas – and I’m a certified therapy dog. It’s my job to sit with them, listen to their stories and share my puppyhood teddy bear whenever they need it.

I’m also assisting with studies at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, where researchers are pioneering programs that will find jobs for returning military personnel by teaming them with dogs who do everything from bomb sniffing and search-and-rescue to truffle hunting.

To help promote eco-friendly truffle practices, another favorite pastime is supporting my friends at Northwest Truffle Dogs. If you’d like to learn more about sustainable truffle harvesting (and learning to train your own truffle dog), please check out their program, Hound Found.

Happy truffle-hunting – and buon appetito!

11 Truffle Dog License Plate

In the mood for more doggy fun? Meet my magical canine buddy  Kero (and watch her in action) in The Kero Chronicles!

ZeAmazing DIY Cracker Caper

ZeBot @ CUESA

Have you ever noticed that food tastes better than ever when you make it yourself? I learned this from some really savvy 5th graders the other day, when I was invited to a supercool DIY class with CUESA’s Foodwise Kids at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in San Francisco.

Our kitchen mission: learn to make our own fresh-baked crackers with seasonal market toppings. I was kind of worried about attempting all this with four clumsy hooves, but the kids told me that if they could DIY, then I could DIZ (which means: “Do It, Zebra!).

Sound like fun? If you can’t wait for a taste, you can watch our movie starring the super-chefs at Longfellow Elementary School right NOW!

And now, back to ZeBlog!
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ZeGreat Abalone Adventure

ZeBot AbaloneIf you’re a kid, you’ve probably heard of baloney (I mean, even zebras know about that stuff). But have you ever heard of abalone?

I never did—until I got to visit a super-cool Bay Area aquafarm with some buddies from the San Francisco Professional Food Society.

This is the sign on the docks that pointed us toward our adventure.

This is the sign on the docks that pointed us toward our adventure.

Our adventure starts down on the docks at Half Moon Bay’s historic Pillar Point Harbor, where Google Executive Chef Olivia Wu and California Abalone Company owner Doug Hayes team up to explain the ABCs of abalone (you say it “a-baloney”) – from farm to table.

Meet my friends Olivia & Doug!

Meet my friends Olivia & Doug!

Olivia says Doug’s abalone farm is “sustainable aquaculture at its best. This is as fresh and local as you can get – and a true labor of love.”

“What I’m doing is so labor-intensive that you might question whether it’s worth it,” Doug admits. “But this is probably the only way people will be able to enjoy abalone in the future.”

Why does he say that? Well, wild abalone (a kind of shellfish known as mollusks) have become very rare –the Monterey Bay Aquarium calls them a “recovering population”.

Doug cares a LOT about sustainably farmed abalone – and so do I!

Doug cares a LOT about sustainably farmed abalone – and so do I!

That’s why Doug decided to start an aquafarm where he could raise abalone sustainably, so that the wild population can keep on recovering.

At the farm in Pillar Point Harbor, only the best is good enough for Doug’s abalone. Every Saturday, he drives down to Monterey to harvest a ton of kelp in the three tasty varieties that make up the mollusks’ favorite menu, then hauls the fresh seaweed out to the farm to feed his gang of shellfish.

The smallest abalone are about as big as a nickel – and will take up to 14 years to reach the largest size that Doug sells off his boat (the “medium” ones are about nine years old).

Introducing: the abalone! Aren't they cool looking?

Introducing: the abalone! Aren’t they cool looking?

When you’re buying something as rare and valuable as abalone, you want to make sure to prepare it properly – so Doug and Olivia provide all the details.

“In the Asian cooking tradition, abalone is sliced very thinly, stir-fried, poached or steamed,” Olivia tells us.

“You want to keep it really simple so you don’t overpower the abalone’s delicate flavor,” Doug adds.

I figure that, when it comes to cooking, simple is always good. I’m still working on the basics, so easy recipes are the ones I go for.

Ahoy, sailor! Did you know zebras were such nautical naturals?

Ahoy, sailor! Did you know zebras were such nautical naturals?

After we’ve have been clued in on the how-tos, Jim Anderson of the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Association makes a surprise announcement: he’s arranged for a vintage 1920s fishing trawler to take us out to the underwater farm for a close-up look.

The aquafarm is just inside the harbor breakwater, where water conditions are perfect for abalone.

We cruise by the 3000 square foot platform that marks the top of the farm – and use our imaginations to envision the cages deep underneath the water. Each cage is as big as a car – and home to hundreds of happy abalone.

You can just see the top of the abalone farm here — the car-sized cages are underwater.

You can just see the top of the abalone farm here — the car-sized cages are underwater.

Another cool thing we learn about while we’re on the boat: besides being good to eat (and good for you because they’re high in protein and low in fat), abalone have beautiful shells.

On the way back to the dock, our new friend Tom (who also owns an abalone company) shows us some of the amazing examples of magical, multicolored shells – check them out in the photos below.

Abalone shells are some of nature’s amazing works of art!

Abalone shells are some of nature’s amazing works of art!

When we get back from our voyage, we head over to the nearby Maverick’s Event Center for more briny seaside fun.

Gaston Alfaro, Executive Chef at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, shares his secrets for prepping, cooking and serving abalone meuniere. Chef Gaston dips the abalone in a little flour and egg, then fries it quickly in butter.

I learned lots of great kitchen tricks from my buddy Chef Gaston.

I learned lots of great kitchen tricks from my buddy Chef Gaston.

I’m trying to learn everything I can about human food, so I’m anxious to sample a tender, golden piece of Chef Gaston’s abalone.

What does abalone taste like? Well, not at all like baloney, but it’s really good. To me, the shellfish tastes very light and delicate, with a rich, buttery goodness that blends beautifully with faraway flavors of the sea.

Chef Gaston's Abalone Meuniere

Here’s Chef Gaston’s abalone meuniere — doesn’t it look yummy?

So does this make you hungry for your own home-cooked abalone?

If you find yourself near Half Moon Bay, just stop by Doug’s boat at slip F-22 in Pillar Point Harbor – he’s there most weekends from 11 am-4 pm (depending on the weather and his mood). If you see him, be sure to say hi from ZeBot!

Stay tuned for more exciting zebra culinary adventures!

Stay tuned for more exciting zebra culinary adventures!

© 2013 Laura Martin Bacon